March 22, 2019

This week, The Sun ran an investigation in to the long-standing, controversial, topic of whether or not our mobile phones are listening to us.

During their investigation, Sun journalist, Miranda Knox conducted an experiment of her own to hopefully prove her theory once and for all.

The Sun reached out to The Defence Works for our input on their investigation: Miranda Knox investigates whether our mobile phones are spying on us

Despite the big tech companies, such as Facebook and Google, all previously – explicitly – stating that they “categorically do not listen to conversations”, Know remains unconvinced.  The view of our MD, Eddie Whittingham, was that:

There’s no question as to whether or not our phones can listen to us, but the million-dollar question is whether they do listen to us.  Obviously when we’re all using systems like Siri, there has to be a technical element – or a trigger – that listens out for that queue to operate. 

Can we say for certain it’s happening?  It’s very difficult to confirm but in some ways, we shouldn’t be surprised.  Companies are now tracking as much data they can about us because they recognise its value.  It’s a long established practice for advertisers to be able to put adverts in front of us on our computers and devices based on our browsing history (via cookies that are placed on our computer when we visit websites) and obviously this has big benefits.

Imagine how much more valuable advertising is to a company selling a product when they know, with a fair amount of accuracy, that you’re actively interested in that product?  And therein lies the incentive and motivation for listening to our conversations.  Is it a step too far?  Or is it the natural evolution of targeted advertising?  Something we try to teach the employee users of our security awareness training, is to start truly understanding the value that their data holds – and how we’ve all been somewhat unaware of just how much we’re sharing.

 If we can all increase our awareness of how these brands treat our data, then we can take steps to limit how much of that data we’re exposing.

Whilst Knox is convinced that her mobile phone is spying on her, there is an argument that such occurrences are purely coincidental, one such theory is The Improbability Principle – on the theory that as you have discussed said topic recently, you are more likely to be tuned in to the topic should it cross your news feed.

Whittingham commented:

The sheer volume of metrics you can target advertising with on Facebook, for example, shows the level of information these tech giants are gathering about us.  

If readers are curious, I’d encourage them to try it for themselves – pick an obscure topic that you’ve never searched for you on your device and start talking about it in earshot of your phone.  

People are encouraged to start getting to grips with their data – and a good starting point for this would be to review the permissions you have on your mobile devices.  Check what permissions each of the Apps on your device has – you might be surprised at just how many have or request access to your microphone, camera – or even phone contacts, when there’s no obvious or tangible reason as to why they’d need it.  Obviously, turning off the permissions for the microphone for all but non-essential apps is a great place to look first.

There’s also a really useful blog to help people stop being stalked by advertisers which can be found here: https://thedefenceworks.com/blog/targeted-ads-how-to-stop-being-stalked-by-advertisers/

Check out the full investigation for yourself, here: https://www.thesun.co.uk/tech/8678640/proof-phones-listening-to-us/


Our top tips for protecting yourself and your business against cyber security:

  • To simply stop seeing some targeted ads, you might wish to consider downloading a reputable ad blocker for your web browser;
  • Regularly clear your cookies and ask websites not to track you. You can do this in the Privacy settings of your web browser;
  • Request for participating Ad agencies to stop tracking your information. You can do this by visiting various reputable opt-out sites;
  • Limit the amount of information you share on your social media accounts. This will help reduce the amount of information that advertisers learn about you;
  • Reset your advertising ID if you are using an Android or Apple phone. This advertising ID helps marketers track you, but you can reset it whenever you want:

– On Android devices, the reset button is in the ads menu inside the Google settings app;

– On iPhones, the reset button can be located in the settings app, under the privacy menu, then advertising.

  • Take a look at your Google ad history every now and again using the My Activity tool. Here, you can choose to delete what data Google has stored about you, including the history of ads you have loaded;
  • Utilise the private browsing mode which doesn’t record your history or cookies;
  • Turn off or restrict access to your camera / microphone unless apps really need it;
  • Review all of the various permissions for the apps you have installed – they will be a few permissions that might surprise you!
  • Ensure you keep you software up to date, as updates often contain vital security updates to secure the software​;
  • Implement security awareness training with your employees to help them increase their knowledge about how their personal data can be used and how to protect it.
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